In this week’s parsha, we read of the final two mitzvot that Moshe Rabbenu transmits to Am Yisrael, the mitzva of Hakhael and the mitzva of writing a sefer torah. When explaining the basis for these mitzvot, the Chinuch (Mitzva 612 and 613) points to the common denominator which connects these two mitzvot, namely the centrality of the Torah. His explanations, however, in fact reflect different aspects of this centrality. When speaking of the mitzva of Hakhael, the Chinuch writes that given this centrality, it is only appropriate to read the Torah publicly, in a festive manner, in order to stress the importance and significance that the Torah represents for us. This in turn will increase the sense of appreciation and longing for the Torah, encouraging the people to aspire to ever greater levels of observance and scholarship.
When speaking of the mitzva of writing a sefer torah, the Chinuch stresses a different aspect. There, he speaks of the need to ensure that a sefer torah is always easily accessible to every individual, not merely to appreciate its significance or to deepen one’s connection to it, but in order to study it and to thereby achieve a greater level of Yirat Hashem, fear or awe of God.
This shift in emphasis can be understood as reflecting the difference between a mitzva oriented to the individual as opposed to a mitzva oriented towards the community. Both the mitzva of Hakhael and the mitzva of writing a sefer torah are focused on deepening the commitment that we have to Torah and mitzvot, yet the difference in the setting is crucial. When speaking of the group, the emphasis is not on individual reflection or growth; these are not qualities which are easily developed in the public square. In that setting, the group dynamic plays a critical role. We are all impressed by public spectacles, they move us in ways that private reflection do not. We become part of a group dynamic, “buying in” to a system, and encouraging others to do so as well. This is very different from the situation facing an individual who sits alone, away from outside influences. This is a time for reflection and introspection, a time for a person to take stock and to decide how to move forward. When alone, a person is able to develop a sense of Yirat Shamayim in a far more profound and intense fashion than can be achieved in public forums. Hence, we can suggest that the Torah gives us two separate mitzvot with a shared goal of deepening commitment to the Torah which defines us, one mitzvah on the individual level and a second on the public level.
When describing the mitzva of Hakhael, the Torah (Devarim 31:12-13) seems to be very specific in explaining why we are commanded to perform this mitzva. ” … So that they will hear and so that they will learn and fear their Lord, Hashem, and keep and perform all the words of this Torah. And your children who do not know will hear and learn to fear Hashem all the days that they live on th eland that you will be crossing the Jordan river to inherit.” This is of course, as we have already discussed, in consonance with the explanation offered by the Chinuch. It is therefore surprising that the Rambam, after offering this reason (Hilchot Chagiga 3:1) suggests another reason a few halachot later (Chagiga 3: 6). There, when finishing the description of how to fulfill the mitzva, the Rambam writes that we must listen in fear and awe,” as was on the day that the Torah was given on Sinai.” The Rambam then continues to say “one should see himself as if he was now commanded in it (the Torah) and he heard it directly from Hashem, as the king (who is reading the Torah) is the agent to pass on the words of Hashem.” The words of the Rambam leave no room for doubt. It is clear that the Rambam saw as one of the reasons, and perhaps the chief reason, for the mitzva of Hakhael the renewal of Brit Sinai, the giving of the Torah. This also explains why the Rambam, in the text between the two passages that we brought, stresses that all the nation, scholars, those who can not hear (either because of infirmity or simply because they are too far away from the reading to hear) and even the ignorant masses who don’t understand must be present. The most important point is to be part of the event, to relive and reaffirm Matan Torah.
In his book, Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua (set #2), Rav Elchanan Samet quotes Rav Yitzhak Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, as asking what the Rambam’s source for this statement is. (The setting where R. Herzog asked the question is in itself significant. It was in 1946, prior to the establishment of the State, at the first formal Hakhael remembrance event held in Israel). To answer this question, R. Samet suggests that the language of the mitzva is reminiscent of the language used at the beginning of Parshat Netzavim, when all of the nation was called together to consecrate Brit Arvot Moav (29:9-11). In both places all of Am Yisrael, including men, women and children are called together in a formal fashion. Just as the Brit of Arvot Moav constitutes a reaffirmation of Brit Sinai, so too Hakhael stands as a reaffirmation and reliving of that event.
- Sametthen quotes the answer that R. Herzog gave at that first Hakhael commemoration more than sixty years ago. If we look back to Parshat Devarim (4:10), we find Moshe Rabbenu’s description of Maamad Har Sinai, in language which is strikingly similar to the language used by the Torah in describing the mitzva of Hakhael. In both places the word “hakhael” (gather) is used to describe what must be done, and in both places the target audience, the purpose of the reading and the centrality of doing the mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael are identical. There can be no doubt of the connection between the two, or of the overarching purpose of the mitzva. Just as Maamad Har Sinai was intended to create and cement within Am Yisrael the centrality of Torah, so too the mitzva of Hakhael reaffirms that experience and creates an environment for the continued acceptance of Torah as being the basis of our religious and national identity. This of course brings us back to the Chinuch and his stress on the pomp and circumstance which creates the public ceremony of accepting the Torah.
May the coming year bring with it the coming of the Mashiach, and the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, so that in two year’s time we are zoche not only to remember the mitzva of Hakhael, but to fulfill it together, thus reaffirming Brit Sinai.
Shabbat Shalom vKetiva v”chatima Tova